Sunday, January 02, 2011

Night Catches Us: A Meditation on Activism, Family and Healing

The best movies provoke thought long after one has left the theater, and the film that did that for me in 2010 was Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us. I saw it when it opened in theaters in December, and it continues to inspire reflection. Some considerations, however, are quite uncomfortable, but those tend to be the ones that have the most to teach.

For those of us actively engaged in social justice movements, Night Catches Us challenges us to examine the personal impact of our political actions. To what extent such actions and their consequences are the inevitable sacrifice we make in the fight against oppression? Is it possible that some of the actions we justify as political resistance are actually rooted in personal wounds, some of which cannot be attributed neatly or wholly to social injustice? And because it may not be possible (if even desirable) to disentangle or reconcile these possibilities, how do we discern the right thing to do? Part of the brilliance of Hamilton’s debut feature is its complex, and therefore, unresolved reflection on this issue.

Set in Philadelphia in 1976, the Night Catches Us opens with the return home of Marcus (Anthony Mackie), a member of the Black Power movement who left four years earlier under questionable circumstances. On the surface, the story is a character-driven mystery: did or did not Marcus inform on a fellow revolutionary and ignite the events that resulted in his assassination in a hail of police fire? But at its essence, the film is about love. Romantic love. Parental love. Revolutionary love. It is an examination of the way those different kinds of love intersect and collide, how they can and cannot be reconciled in ways we can neither control nor predict, and why despite all this messiness, we still feel compelled to get our hands and hearts dirty.

After seeing the film, I was immediately reminded of my 1997 trip to Cuba where I had to opportunity to hear Assata Shakur speak. One sentiment that she shared was that she regretted how little time she and fellow activists spent with their children. Shakur stated that while their children might have been present while they were engaged in political action, they were not involved. Furthermore, she also clarified that she was not speaking merely of politicizing children but rather the larger and more important objective of raising them in community, drawing them emotionally close and otherwise rejecting the expectation that their needs be sacrificed to promote social justice.

Clearly, some activists of the 60s and 70s who gave so much to their people did so at the expense of their own children. And to be sure, some of us are repeating that mistake, inheriting psychic wounds as readily as we do eye color or body type. With all compassion and fairness, I can imagine that the sociopolitical climate in which our elders lived was such that they could not even see never mind manage the contradiction of advocating so vigilantly for other families to the point that they neglected their own.

Yet ironically the sacrifices they made and the gains they achieved actually make it easier for my generation to do just that. Whether we are red diaper babies or political black sheep, as we start our own families and build relationships with the youth in our lives, we seem to be making a more conscientious effort to balance engaging in activism toward creating a better world “out there” and practicing liberation within our own homes. Thus, in many ways, even the errors of the previous generation result in the privileges of ours. So I don’t say this to judge those elders or reify my peers. I only wish to name an unsaid – or more accurately bring whispered conversations to the public discourse – with the intention of promoting communal healing and political effectiveness. My hope is that more of us will watch Night Catches Us and show up courageously to a multigenerational conversation about the questions it raises.

Not that it is a film that should only be seen by people who consider themselves activists. Watching it reminded me of lesson I learned early and painfully in 2010: all any of us needs to do to have a life that matters is heal our family’s history. Depending on what we value, we harbor fantasies of being the next Oprah Winfrey or Malcolm X. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is not necessary to have a positive and pervasive impact in the world. If all you did was identify the wound that has been passed down in your family from one generation to the next and said, “This stops with me,” you will have paid your rent on this planet. For some of us the family wound is violence. For others it is substance abuse. In my own family it is abandonment, real and perceived. Anything you might do after healing your family history is above and beyond the call of duty, and, hence, there is no need to sacrifice your children.

Life coach Rhonda Britten writes that love is messy. So is movement. It’s that messiness that makes both necessary and worthwhile.

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